One of the chief characteristics of Barack Obama’s speechifying is its contempt for words as anything other than props of self-puffery. Consider, for example, his recent remarks to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy:
“America has not succeeded by stepping out of the currents of cooperation - we have succeeded by steering those currents in the direction of liberty and justice.”
“Steering those currents”? How could even a member of the president’s insulated, self-regarding speechwriting team be so tin-eared as to write that line? How could the president be so tone-deaf as to deliver it in May of 2010? Hey, genius, if you’re so good at “steering currents,” why not try doing it in the Gulf of Mexico?
As for many great “thinkers,” for Barack Obama and his coterie, words seem to exist mostly in the realm of metaphor rather than as descriptors of actual action actually occurring in anything so humdrum as reality. And so it is that even as his bungling administration flounders in the turbulent waters of the Gulf, on the speaker’s podium the president still confidently sails forth, deftly steering the ship through the narrow ribbon of sludge between the Scylla of sonorous banality and the Charybdis of gaseous uplift.
Two years ago this week, then-Sen. Obama declared that his very nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate (never mind his election or inauguration) marked the moment when “our planet began to heal” and “the rise of the oceans began to slow.” “Well, when you anoint yourself King Canute,” remarked Charles Krauthammer the other day, “you mustn’t be surprised when your subjects expect you to command the tides.”
Poor old Canute has been traduced by posterity. He was the Viking king of Denmark, England, Norway and bits of Sweden, which, as Joe Biden would say, was a big (expletive) deal back in the 11th century. And, like Good King Barack, he had a court full of oleaginous sycophants who were forever telling him, as Newsweek editor Evan Thomas said of Mr. Obama, that he was “sort of God.” So one day, weary of being surrounded by Chris Matthews types with the legs a-tingling 24/7, Canute ordered the footmen to take his throne down to the shore and he’d command the incoming waves to stay the hell out. Just like Obama, he would steer the very currents. Next thing you know, Canute’s got seaweed in his wingtips and is back at the palace wringing out his Argyll socks. “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” he said, “for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”
In other words, he was teaching his courtiers a lesson in the limits of kingly power. I’m a child of the British Empire, and back in my kindergarten days, almost all the stories we were taught about kings went more or less the same way. Generations of English children learned of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex back in the ninth century. Another A-list big shot, Winston Churchill, called him “the greatest Englishman that ever lived.” One day, during a tumultuous time in the affairs of his kingdom, he passed a remote cottage and called in on the local peasant woman to rest a while. Unaware of who he was, she went off to milk the cow and told him to mind the cakes she’d left on the hearth. He was a big-picture guy preoccupied with geopolitical macro-trends, and he absent-mindedly let the cakes burn. She took him to task (“You’re happy to eat the cakes but too lazy to keep an eye on them”) but, upon realizing he was the king, begged a thousand pardons. “No, no,” he said. “Entirely my fault.” And there in the rude hovel, he humbly turned the woman’s loaves for her.
In the age of kings, we were taught that kings were human, with human failings. Now, in the age of citizen-presidents, we are taught that government has unlimited powers over “heaven, earth and sea.” Unlike Canute and Alfred, big government in its vanity knows no bounds. Tim Flannery, the Aussie global-warm-monger who chaired the Copenhagen climate circus a few months back, announced with a straight face that “we’re trying to act as a species to regulate the atmosphere.” Never mind anything so footing as the incoming tides, but the very atmosphere! How do you do that? Well, first, take one extremely large check. Next, add several extra zeroes to it. Then toss it out the window. “He whom heaven, earth and sea obey by eternal laws”? Hah! That’s chicken feed compared to the way things are gonna be once heaven, earth and sea are forced to submit to a transnational microregulatory regime.
Almost every problem we face today arises from the vanity of big government. Why does BP have oil wells 5,000 feet underwater in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico? Because government regulated them off land, off coast and ever deeper into the briny. True, BP went along. Its initials stand for British Petroleum. You may not be aware of that if you’ve seen any of the company’s commercials in recent years: “BP - Beyond Petroleum.” It was an oil company ashamed of its product and advertising only how anxious it was to get with the environmental program. A fat lot of good that did it. BP, not to mention its customers, would have been better to push back against government policies that drive energy suppliers into ever more unpredictable terrain in order to protect the Alaskan breeding grounds of the world’s largest mosquito herd. Instead, we’ll do the opposite. There’ll be even more government protection of “the environment” and even more government regulation of the oil industry - and BP will be drilling for oil in that Icelandic volcano.
It’s the same in Europe. Greece’s problem isn’t so very difficult to diagnose. As in many Western nations, its government has spent tomorrow today. As in New York and California, public-sector unions have looted the future. This is the entirely foreseeable consequence of government policy.
So what’s the solution? The international bailout (including a hefty contribution by U.S. taxpayers) is a massive subsidy to the Greeks to carry on doing all the stuff that got ‘em into their present mess. The European motive for doing this is to “save the euro” - a currency whose very existence is a monument to the unbounded narcissism of government. The euro notes are decorated by scenic views of handsome Renaissance, Gothic and classical edifices - just like the White House on U.S. currency. The only difference is that the European buildings do not exist in what we used to call the real world. They’re fictional. That’s big government: Even if you don’t build it, they’ll still come. If you invent a currency for a united Europe, a united Europe is sure to follow.
The princelings of the new ruling class rarely have to live with the consequences of their narcissism. Nancy Pelosi can monkey with your health care, but hers will still be grand. Greek bureaucrats can regulate your business into the ground, but they’ll still have their pensions and benefits. And, when the cakes are burning to a crisp, King Barack the Verbose won’t be in the peasant hovel with you but off giving a critically acclaimed speech about how the world works best when we all get an equal slice of the pie.
Mark Steyn is the author of the New York Times best-seller “America Alone” (Regnery, 2006).